Friday, June 27, 2014

Dumbledore and the Diadem... Something got lost

Help me understand something.

In all of the time Dumbledore spends teaching Harry about Voldemort's past and the existence of the Horcruxes, why doesn't Dumbledore ever mention the lost Diadem of Ravenclaw?

Dumbledore takes great care to ensure that Harry learns two things that will help in his search for the Horcruxes: 1) that Voldemort will use important items to create his Horcruxes and 2) that Voldemort has a special affinity for relics related to the four founders of Hogwarts.

The Headmaster identifies three of relics related to the school's founders: Slytherin's locket; Hufflepuff's Cup; and Gryffindor's sword. Only the sword is still safe from Voldemort's clutches.

If there are six Horcruxes, Dumbledore and Harry agree, then they can deduce that they know the identity of five of them: the Diary (destroyed), the Gaunt ring (destroyed), Slytherin's locket, Hufflepuff's Cup; and Nagini. The identity of the sixth remains a mystery but they believe it must be associated with Rowena Ravenclaw, the school's fourth founder.

So why, at that point, does Dumbledore not say, "And I believe it likely to be Ravenclaw's lost diadem" or at least "I would suspect that it might be Ravenclaw's lost diadem if it weren't for the fact that it is, indeed, lost".

The way the scenes between Harry and the Headmaster in The Half-Blood Prince play out, it would appear that Dumbledore is unaware of the existence of, or the legend of, the lost diadem.

And that makes no sense to me. Dumbledore knew more about Hogwarts and its history than anyone. It is not possible that he would be unaware of the diadem and its story. And he was determined to give Harry as much information about the possible location of the Horcruxes as he could. It is also not possible that he forgot to mention the diadem to Harry at that point or chose not to so so.

The only possibility I can think of is that Rowling had not yet conceived of the lost diadem when she wrote the sixth book. That it was simply fortuitous that she had Harry use a tarnished tiara to mark the location in which he hid his potions book in The Half-Blood Prince and that then, when she came up with the idea of having a lost item of Ravenclaw's be the final Horcrux in order to add more suspense to the ending of The Deathly Hallows, she realised that she had already inserted just the thing in her story.

If that is actually what happened, I think it's awesome! I am in awe of Rowling's creativity and care in crafting these incredibly rich, detailed stories. I will be even more in awe if it is confirmed for me that, at the height of her writing, she was able to make such an amazing, inspired connection with an innocuous detail from her earlier novel to such dramatic effect.

But, if not, then Dumbledore should have mentioned the diadem to Harry.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Caught up in translation

Ahhh, Quebec City in the summer time.

What a beautiful city! What amazing weather!

What a great opportunity to practice my French!

And what a great opportunity to visit a number of used book stores and find, at really great prices, the final four Harry Potter novels in their French translations.

I now own the entire seven-book series in French. I have written several posts on this blog related to these translations and they have been some of the best read entries of all.

As much of a challenge as it is to read the books in another language, it is also very rewarding. Despite some of my earlier reservations, I find the translators have done a wonderful job of capturing J.K.'s original language and imagery, of recreating the magic of her world, even of coming up with inventive names for some of the characters.

And, by forcing me to read the stories more slowly, the French translations have more than once permitted me to notice details that I have missed in my many readings of the English versions in the past. I get so caught up in the story in English that I tend to speed right through each and every time.

With the French, I have to read slowly, look up unfamiliar words, think about what I'm reading in order to keep up. And that means I sometimes notice more.

Stay tuned. My plan is to read The Deathly Hallows in English (since I have just finished reading the first six novels), then start over again with the French translations. It should be fun!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Two awesome scenes between Headmaster and Dark Lord

Two of the most intense individual scenes in The Half-Blood Prince, in the entire seven-novel Harry Potter adventure in fact, play out inside the Pensieve.

In my opinion, the two encounters between Professor Dumbledore and younger versions of Tom Riddle that Harry experiences from within Dumbledore's own memories represent J.K. Rowling's writing at its very best.

The first takes place at the orphanage where Riddle grew up. Dumbledore has arrived to deliver the boy's Hogwarts letter and to explain to him that he is, in fact, "special". It's brilliantly paced and beautifully written.

And it opens with a wonderful moment between Harry and the Headmaster. When Harry first spies the younger Dumbledore on the bustling, old-fashioned London Street, he is amused to see that Dumbledore is sporting a garish plum-coloured velvet suit.

"Nice suit, sir," Harry says "before he could stop himself".

I don't know why, but that line and the fact that Dumbledore "merely chuckled" in response always make me laugh.

And then Rowling moves us directly into the austere and somewhat ramshackle neatness of Mrs. Cole's orphanage and the wonderful scene of Dumbledore plying the good woman with gin, trying his best to wheedle information from her about her youthful charge, Tom Riddle.

The conversation develops in a natural, almost poetic way and, when Mrs. Cole blurts out, "He's definitely got a place at your school", it's a nice, subtle indication of both how much she wants to tell someone of her suspicions respecting young Tom Riddle and how concerned she is to be rid of him.

Rowling is at her best when she finally leads us into Riddle's room. She knows that this a moment her readers have anticipated for some time yet she refuses to permit herself to indulge in any phoney melodrama.
It was a small bare room with nothing in it except an old wardrobe, a wooden chair and an iron bedstead. A boy was sitting on top of grey blankets, his legs stretched out in front of him, holding a book. 
There was no trace of the Gaunt's in Tom Riddle's face. Merope had got her dying wish: he was his handsome father in miniature, tall for eleven years old, dark-haired and pale. His eyes narrowed slightly as he took in Dumbledore's eccentric appearance. There was a moment's silence.
This is wonderful writing. Subtle, almost anti-climactic. The greatest dark wizard of all time is, at this point, just a handsome, quiet boy sitting on a bed.

And the ensuing conversation between the boy and the teacher involves a wonderfully slow evocation of several aspects of Riddle's character, aspects that Dumbledore later takes care to draw to Harry's attention: his independence, his distrust of others, his personal power and the streak of cruelty that comes with it, his certainty that he is, in some way, "special", his wish to impress but his refusal to trust, his interest in collecting trophies to mark his moments of greatest power and cruelty.

And then there are these paragraphs:
"Hogwarts," Dumbledore went on, as though he had not heard Riddle's last words, "is a school for people with special abilities --" 
"I'm not mad! 
"I know you are not mad. Hogwarts is not a school for mad people. It is a school of magic." 
There was silence. Riddle had frozen, his face expressionless, but his eyes flickering back and forth between each of Dumbledore's, as though trying to catch one of them lying.
"It's... it's magic, what I can do?"
This is the moment when Riddle finds out just how special he is, when it starts to dawn on him the possibilities that lie in front of him. For Harry, this moment led to a longer period of disbelief (that it simply wasn't true) and worry (that he would fail as a wizard). For Riddle, the moment was confirmation of what he had long believed: that he was special, powerful.

Later in The Half-Blood Prince, Harry experiences a second interview between Dumbledore and Tom Riddle from the past, this one having taken place several years after Riddle, now calling himself Voldemort, had graduated from Hogwarts.

It is another, gripping, evocative scene. And it begins with that wonderful moment when Voldemort asserts himself and his new name, an assertion of power that Dumbledore deftly turns aside.
Harry felt the atmosphere in the room change subtly: Dumbledore's refusal to use Voldemort's chosen name was a refusal to allow Voldemort to dictate the terms of the meeting, and Harry could tell that Voldemort took it as such.
Harry's perception of the incident is, in my opinion, accurate and a reflection of how much Harry had already learned from Dumbledore with regard to the subtle ways power plays out in seemingly harmless conversations. Recall, for a moment, how deftly Harry had handled Rufus Scrimgeour when Scrimgeour had cornered him at the Burrow over Christmas.

Although not as courteous at every moment as his Headmaster, Harry proved himself to be equally adept at controlling the terms of the conversation, using his own silence to keep the Minister for Magic off-balance and uncertain.

Rowling does a wonderful job of building the tension in the Dumbledore-Voldemort scene slowly. She uses small details in the conversation (Dumbledore's refusal to use Voldemort's assumed name, Dumbledore's familiarity with the term "Death Eaters", and Dumbledore's detailed knowledge of the "friends" who had accompanied Voldemort to Hogsmeade and who were waiting for him at the Hog's Head) to render Voldemort increasingly ill-at-ease so that, when Dumbledore finally challenges him to be honest about why he wants to return to Hogwarts and refuses to offer him a job, Voldemort is enraged.

We, like Harry, wonder if Voldemort might draw his wand then and there.

These are two effective, wonderfully written scenes, real to the tiniest detail, enlightening for the reader in so many ways. They are Rowling at her very best.

It's almost like most of what took place in the five and half novels up until that point were leading directly to these moments of intense interaction between these two powerful, yet very different, wizards.

And Rowling doesn't disappoint.

Monday, June 16, 2014

From 500 to five-hundred-million

While I love the Harry Potter books and, to a lesser extent, the Harry Potter movies, I am not one of those fans who wants to find out everything there is to know about the author, the actors, or the other people involved in the creation of the Harry Potter world.

I don't spend my time online, searching for the latest tidbit that has fallen from the lips of J.R. Rowling or Daniel Radcliffe or anyone else. Sure, if I encounter a piece of news related to the magical world, the books, the movies or the people of Harry Potter, I won't turn away but I don't spend my time actively seeking such nuggets.

That explains why it is entirely possible that something I write about on this blog that seems like a remarkable revelation to me might just be old hat to the more dedicated Potter fans who have stumbled across my humble offerings. Things that are new and exciting to me, I often discover, have already been recognized and talked over in the more public fandom.

Oh well...

That being said, I still feel a bit of a thrill when, in the course of my meanders through life, I run across an interesting bit of information about the Harry Potter books.

And exactly that happened to me today.

As a Father's Day gift, my dog bought me a trade paperback copy of Allison Hoover Bartlett's 2009 book The Man Who Loved Books Too Much (Penguin). Hoover Bartlett's book is a perfect gift for me (Marlee Marie knows me well!) and I'm very much enjoying the opportunity to read it.

On page 22, however, I came across the piece of Potter-data that has me quite interested.

Hoover Bartlett, in setting out a brief list of some of the rare books collectors look for at book fairs, identifies the first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone as one of them.


She also states that there were only 500 copies of The Philosopher's Stone printed in that first edition. I was stunned, to be honest. That was a piece of Potter-data that was completely new to me. 500 copies. That was it.

Unbelievable. That's why a copy of that first edition is now worth, according to Hoover Bartlett, $30,000 in American money. Wowweeee.

I'm a bit of a book collector myself. I don't go to book fairs or buy expensive copies from dealers but I do like to browse garage sales and used book shops and charity book sales, looking for books of interest to me. I've picked up several autographed volumes along the way, as well as a volume of poems by John Milton from 1674 and a first edition Ian Fleming, which is apparently worth a bit.

I guess I'll have to keep an eye out for that Harry Potter first edition as well. Not that I expect to find one here in my remote little corner of Canada but you never now.

And wouldn't it be great to own one of those rare 500, the books that represented in and of themselves a triumph for J.K. Rowling when she first saw them delivered from the publisher, the advanced guard, so to speak, of what would eventually become the Harry Potter empire.

And spawn adoring blogs like this one.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Brief encounter, Harry Potter style

A  Harry Potter moment:

Due to a broken toe, I've been taking the bus every day this week to work, rather than enjoying my usual half-hour walk into the office.

And, on those occasions when I do take the bus, I try to remember to bring a book to read while I stand at the bus stop and then enjoy the 10-minute ride downtown.

Today, I brought The Half-Blood Prince with me for the trip, complete with my hand-knit Gryffindor bookmark, which mimics the red and gold pattern of the scarves from the later movies.

So I'm sitting there on the bus, enjoying the scene where Rufus Scrimgeour corners Harry at the Burrow over Christmas, the bookmark on my knee, and I look up for a second to find a young woman, maybe 20 years old, gazing avidly at the bookmark and trying to get a clear look at the cover of my open book.

I close the book briefly so that she can see blue, red and green cover. She smiles, nods, then goes back to her iPad.

I go back to my reading and, when the bus comes to a stop downtown, we both head off into our lives. No words exchanged. No other glances.

Just a brief moment on the bus to share our love of Harry Potter.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Rowling's missed opportunity in The Half-Blood Prince

I have spent a lot of time trying to figure out why I think that The Half-Blood Prince is the weakest of the seven Harry Potter novels. What is it about this book that simply does not work?

Sure, I've read the critics who disregard THBP as merely a set-up for the grand finale. And I think there's some merit to that argument.

But I think there's something more.

And I also think that, despite its limitations, THBP also has a lot to offer, a lot of really interesting scenes and great writing.

My analysis is by no means complete at this point but, if I had to say today what most concerns me about this novels, I'd have to say that it's the fact that, for the first and only time in the Harry Potter series, the main line of action in the book does not involve Harry, Hermione and Ron directly. In fact, the novel's central plot -- Draco Malfoy's desperate attempt to kill Dumbledore and redeem his family in the eyes of the Dark Lord -- happens almost entirely "off stage", so to speak.

It's an odd choice for Rowling and, in my opinion, a missed opportunity.

J.K. shows, in the first two chapters, that she is willing to permit her narrative voice to venture far away from our hero, Harry. In fact, Harry does not even appear in "The Other Minister" and "Spinner's End" -- in these opening chapters, Rowling presents the story from the perspective of the Muggle Prime Minister and of Narcissa Malfoy and Severus Snape.

What I don't understand is why she then commits herself so firmly and irrevocably to Harry's point of view from the third chapter onward. Especially when the central tale is with Draco, an interesting and enigmatic character who finds himself facing an extremely difficult challenge.

Wouldn't you have loved to have experienced the entire main plot of the sixth book through the eyes of Draco Malfoy, to understand the pressures he is under, the mixture of fear, anger, and desperation he must feel as he tries to figure out a way to accomplish the task set before him?

Wouldn't that have been a fascinating way to see the magical world in the Harry Potter series?

And wouldn't you have been much more caught up in the building suspense of the main plot of the book?

My point is that Rowling set herself a very difficult task in THBP: to try to keep her reader enthralled in the story without actually permitting us to experience in any real, ongoing way the development of that story.

And I think she, for the most part, failed.

I don't think the brief glimpses we see of Draco, the tiny hints to which we become privy throughout the novel, the suspicions of Harry that are brought to our attention but dismissed by everyone else are sufficient to keep us riveted by that story line.

And I don't think that other things Rowling offers in THBP -- the quidditch subplot, the romantic story lines, even the investigation of Voldemort's childhood -- are sufficient to make up for the lack of a gripping main plot.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

So that's what happened to Karkaroff

I have often commented on how impressed I am with J.K. Rowling's ability to juggle so many characters, so many locations, so much information about her invented magical world and yet maintain absolute consistency in it over the course of seven novels. The continuity mistakes are few and far between in her seven-book adventure.

She must either have a prodigious memory or an amazing filing system or both.

So I am not at all surprised that, after posing a question in this space some time ago about the fate of Professor Karkaroff (the Durmstrang Head Master who plays such a large role in The Goblet of Fire and then disappears late in the TriWizard Tournament, fleeing in fear when his Dark Mark begins to grow clearer), I find my answer early in The Half-Blood Prince.

Rowling didn't forget Karkaroff. No, she followed up on his story with her usual subtlety and grace.

One hundred pages into book six, she has Remus Lupin drop in for dinner at the Burrow with some updates on how the war is progressing.

"...they've found Igor Karkaroff's body in a shack up north," he says. "The Dark Mark had been set over it -- well, frankly, I'm surprised he stayed alive for even a year after deserting the Death Eaters; Sirius's brother Regulus only managed a few days as far as I can remember."

As is typical for J.K., she manages to connect one small piece of information from the past (tying up the Karkaroff loose end) with a much more important piece of information for the future: confirming that Regulus Black was a Death Eater, then had a change of mind, then died.

This will become very important later in The Half-Blood Prince.

Even more impressive is the fact that this one little comment foreshadows and comments upon the events of book seven. Lupin's point seems to be: unless you are Albus Dumbledore, if Voldemort wants you dead, your time remaining on earth is short.

So, in fact, he's commenting indirectly on how miraculous it is that Harry has survived this long and that Harry, Hermione and Ron manage to stay alive throughout the course of The Deathly Hallows, despite the fact that the Death Eaters, the Snatchers and the Ministry are all hunting for them and anyone who might be sympathetic to the trio is too afraid to help them.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Snape and the big moral questions...

J.K. Rowling's sixth Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, is aptly named. This book really is about Severus Snape, Hogwarts' enigmatic Potions (and now Dark Arts) teacher.

Central to the story is the overwhelming question: whose side is Snape on?

Ever since they met in book one, Harry and Snape have loathed each other. Slowly, over the course of the next four books, we discover the story behind that mutual enmity, an enmity that is rooted in Snape's own experience as a loner and outcast, tormented by Harry's popular father during their school years.

And, even more important, we receive hints in book five that for some reason (which will become clearer in the final novel) Harry's mother, Lily Evans, took on a somewhat protective, big sister role in relation to Snape at Hogwarts. We know at that point that James Potter and Lily are destined to marry, produce one child and then die at the wand of Lord Voldemort. We don't yet have a clear idea of how the relationships presented in Snape's own memory in The Order of the Phoenix (with James Potter and Severus Snape seemingly mortal enemies and with Lily Evans protective of the latter and involved in a conflicted relationship with the latter) result in Lily and James married and Snape on the outside looking in.

Further, we discover that Snape was, in fact, a Death Eater and still bears the Dark Mark on his arm.

On the other hand, we also know that Dumbledore trusts Snape no matter what anyone else says. And, to be honest, despite behaviour on Snape's part toward Harry that is downright abusive in some instances.

Rowling very carefully establishes this important question: is Dumbledore right to trust Snape or is this just another instance of the aging Head Master choosing to trust where trust has not been earned? Is Snape still Voldemort's man or is he truly loyal to Dumbledore?

In the sixth book, Rowling takes great pains to convince us of the answer to this question. Snape, she argues persuasively, is still Voldemort's man. Dumbledore is wrong to trust him and pays for his error with his life at the end of the book.

We begin The Deathly Hallows hating Snape as much as Harry does.

And then find out, at the end of the final novel, that Dumbledore was, in fact, right and Snape was truly loyal to the cause of right and good.

That's a fairly long introduction to the moral issue I really want to address in this post: now that we know that Snape is a good guy, how do we feel/what do we think when we go back and read The Half-Blood Prince and hear Snape tell Bellatrix and Narcissa: "The Dark Lord is satisfied with the information I have passed him on the Order. It led, as you perhaps have guessed, to the recent capture and murder of Emmeline Vance, and it certainly helped dispose of Sirius Black..."?

Snape is a good guy and yet he helped bring about the deaths of two other of the good guys: Emmeline Vance and Sirius Black.

At its heart, this is a moral question. Is it morally acceptable to sacrifice at least two lives in hopes of avoiding the deaths of many many more?

Of course, Snape could simply be lying at this point, taking advantage of the two recent deaths to strengthen his argument that he is loyal to Voldemort.

But I don't buy that. Snape could not possibly have convinced the paranoid and overly protective Dark Lord that he, Snape, was a loyal Death Eater if he was unwilling to play an active part in the deaths of members of the Order. We see even more evidence of this at the beginning of the final book.

So can we forgive Snape the deaths of Vance and Black simply because Snape turns out to be a good guy? Is it really acceptable to argue that "the good of the many outweighs the good of the few, or the one"?

Even further, is it appropriate for Snape to sacrifice others on that basis rather than just himself?

I have long believed that Rowling has a very strong cold-blooded side to her, at least in her writing. She makes it clear throughout these books that, in times of war, good people are going to die.

Cedric's death, for example, is not strictly necessary: he was, in fact, a "spare" in that graveyard scene, as Voldemort calls him. His sacrifice was intended to 1) cement Harry's good side, 2) introduce the fact of death to the looming battle, and 3) provide an ongoing challenge for Harry's developing personal life in the next several books. But it was not absolutely necessary to the plot of the book.

Further, Rowling kills off Hedwig at the start of book seven and the beloved owl's death is particularly meaningless. Hedwig is killed by an errant spell while trapped in her cage, riding in the sidecar of Hagrid's motorcycle. Her death is merely collateral damage. (As I have mentioned elsewhere, the film-makers rejected this meaningless death and actually revised the scene to make Hedwig's sacrifice heroic: she flies in front of a killing spell to save Harry's life).

But, for Rowling, Hedwig's death was a way to show us, very early in The Deathly Hallows, that this was going to be a very difficult journey. That people would die. If she could kill off a beloved animal so casually in the first pages of the book, we knew she was prepared to kill of any of our favourite human characters as the story progressed. By killing off Hedwig, Rowling set up her reader to take nothing for granted, to understand that anyone (including Harry, Hermione or Ron) could die.

And, of course, there is Dumbledore's willingness to sacrifice Harry to ensure Voldemort is killed in the end. Even Snape finds Dumbledore's coldblooded approach to Harry surprising and chilling. I don't have the passage in front of me but I believe Snape describes the Head Master's preparation of Harry for the final confrontation with Voldemort "like preparing a lamb for slaughter" or something like that.

Rowling is, as a writer at least, incredibly cold-blooded.

But, from a moral standpoint, can we forgive Snape for the part he has played in the deaths of a number of very good characters simply because he was doing it for "the greater good"?